bookhouse prize




For many generations, uncertainty and tension have pervaded both the people of Under The Sky and the wraiths of Kiriyanga, but they trudge on, while holding on to the little streaks of light at the end of this seemingly-never-ending tunnel – a prophecy that order would be restored on the Day of Scarlet. This imminent respite, however, comes with stringent conditions: “… until a woman drinks from the confluence of two rivers that do not mix, the Day of Scarlet will not come.”

Scarlet is an inquiry into the absurdity of possessing absolute power or its pursuit thereof. With strong allusions to the Grecian myth of Zeus and Hades, and Yoruba myths of love triangles among gods as told of Osun, Ogun, and Sango, or Yemoja, Obatala, and Ogun, woven into and set in tales from Kikuyu lore, Alexander Emmanuel Ochogwu lends his voice to the conversations around politics and power-grabbing in Nigeria, Africa, and beyond.


The First Sign


Chapter One


"Don't be afraid when you hear of wars and

revolutions; such things must happen first, but

they do not mean that the end is near."

- Luke 21 verse 9, (HCSB Bible)


Day of the First Sign       

Ambu, Asanki, and Sobi, arrived at the crest of Forbidden Mountains at the ninth hour of the day to determine the winner of the day's weather predictions. The emerging yellow sun and the wooden triangular prism that had a screen at one end, an eyehole at the opposite end, and was stuffed with three slabs of reflecting mirrors would be the arbiters. The vista of the surrounding perspective from the peak of the tallest platform in the world – their world – was heavenly. They say it is the first place the first man ever created stepped foot on. After tossing the defaced coin thrice, the contest for the roasted squirrel began with Asanki as the first to mount the pinnacle.

Grudgingly, Asanki snatched the kaleidoscope from Ambu and trudged to position. His unevenly tanned body strapped inside a serated impala leather pants, the unkempt red studs that passed for hair on his head, a half-formed chest, and the tiny legs his funnel shaped body rested on, made him look like a forlorn scarecrow whose pants were eaten up by bush rats. Asanki's eyes twitched to focus. He adjusted his stance for the umpteenth time, as he studied the patterns the sun's reflection made on the transparent glass at the other end of the prism. His hands dropped when his time was up, and he stomped down the steep slope to join his agitated friends. Puffing with angst and not saying exactly what his grudge was, he passed the handmade kaleidoscope to Ambu.

Sobi craned his neck and glanced furtively at Ambu who was struggling with the apparatus. After three successive trials, Ambu returned and like his predecessor, kept his findings to himself as he handed the kaleidoscope to Sobi, the caricature child of Forbidden Mountains, who was rumoured to be the product of an affair between a mortal – his mother – and a crippled wraith. Sobi took his turn with the back of his head slanted like a stretched sling of a catapult to touch the hump on his back, while the face of the kaleidoscope pointed to the sun.

Five times, he rotated the lens and five times the pattern inside the prism remained the same.

"Thahu!" he lamented, throwing the kaleidoscope to the ground as he stomped away, descending the hill.

Asanki followed behind him, his head drooped, in deep thoughts. Ambu trudged past the two of them, grumbling to no one's hearing. Ambu was first to reach the pointed thin rod on which a roasted squirrel was impaled, with a rod piercing through the coccyx of the poor creature to run past its innards and burst from its charred right eye. Because Ambu had the game hanging taut in the grip of his left hand and would not allow anyone go near it, Asanki attacked him, and their fight turned bloody. At intervals, they would unclutch, but their respective accounts of what they saw on the screen remained the same.

"No winner!"

The two fighters paused, and for a moment their gaze fell on the interrupter.

The weakling speaks!

Sobi fidgeted; the malicious looks from the faces of his favourite bullies and molesters awakened a brief numbness in his legs. A forced pee trickled down his pants, and his lips clattered in rasping retort, yet fear, like a betrayer's kiss, embraced his vulnerability and tortured him more.

"We have to tell the witchdoctor." Sobi blurted.

Though he sounded weak and unconvincing, there was something about the sincerity in his voice that made Ambu and Asanki stop fighting. An obscure realisation dawned, after Sobi, who was blessed with the gift of prescience, told them what he had seen on that screen, and on the foreboding. Now shivering to their teeth, the fighters also admitted to seeing the face of a crying baby, each time an image formed on the screen.

To this day, none of the boys remember which they first heard; the buzz of the swarm of flies or the sound of hasty feet. All they know is that they marched to the shrine of the witchdoctor and saw flies buzzing all over his decomposing body and people running about.


The Sekus of Forbidden Mountains could predict natural disasters, epidemic, wars, due dates of child delivery for pregnant women, a child's destiny and whether the child would become a burden or an asset to society, and forecast the weather. It was easy for a Seku to forecast the day's weather by looking at the sun through the kaleidoscope at the ninth hour of the day. A common belief with the Sekus was that evil was weakest and the sun was purest at that time of the day. The sun was also believed to be neutral and fair at the ninth hour.

An image accompanied by a faltering green light, on the screen of a kaleidoscope at the ninth hour, meant there would be heavy rainfall for most part of the day; pale blue light signified a tranquil weather; while specks of red spatteredon an image meant that it would be a sunny day. However, the strange image the boys saw on the kaleidoscope and the mysterious death of the only person that might have given a clue of what the appearing of a crying baby on the screen of a kaleidoscope meant, made it impossible for the Sekus to interpret the day's weather forecast as well as the foreboding of both events. Little wonder, the streamers of the aurora that shrouded the vault over Forbidden Mountains at the tenth hour was interpreted as a sign of the long-awaited Day of Scarlet.

The crackle at mid-day was the pith of a sycamore tearing, and a howling wind wafted over Forbidden Mountains. Boughs swayed and creaked, largely buffeted by the wind that fell trees, swept shorelines, and battered hills. At a few minutes past noon, the murky clouds condensed into torrents of rain, which coalesced into triangular, circular, and cuboid ice.

Heaven's first tear splat on a lone small rock lying on Forbidden Mountains, the mountain range also called Kirimakia Irima-ini. The conglomerate of plateaus, spontaneous valleys, forested slopes, shallow streams, brooks and river pathways, drainage basins and waterfalls, small and large mountains, and volcanic rocks was home to over seven hundred thousand fugitive Sekus. It sat at the south of the equator and lofted to a whopping altitude of seventeen thousand feet at its highest peak.

In the evenings, after weary nomads retired for the day, young shepherds would gather in a small farm at the outskirts of Virgin Land to look at the point where the crest of Forbidden Mountains kissed the sky. By that time of the day, the sky around the horizon would have beamed with a combination of pale red and yellow lights and a tinge of azure, giving the firmament that special look that youngsters attributed to the wonders of Akpeju, the god of aura and beauty. Akpeju was believed to be the deity who clothed nature and humans with hypnotic beauty. Under the watch of the sky’s lights, if one viewed from Forbidden Mountains, Virgin Land was an endless stream of disoriented clusters of bleached titanium yellow roofs of varying shapes and sizes, and of dots representing people. The thin linear and serpentine landmarks running through green and brown vegetation were the foot tracks of animals and people; patches of farmlands were scattered in patterned columns; while winding rivers were split into arterioles that reconvened as confluxes of lakes, seas, and oceans at distant places, thousands of miles away from Virgin Land.


Unlike Forbidden Mountains and its pandemonium, serenity prevailed in Virgin Land. The Otutus of Virgin Land who lived about ninety kilometres south of Forbidden Mountains, had nothing to worry about. Largely known for their slurping lifestyle, majority of them, including Anote the Seventh – the current supreme king of the Realms, were so drunk that no one within range heard when Mukuyu, the biggest tree in Virgin Land and most significant artefact in the historic evolution of Kikiyuland from the nine remote clans to the Realms that was now called Kwante, fell.

"A strange thing has happened in Virgin Land," a voice alarmed. It was Ava, the three-foot-tall woman known in Virgin Land for her unbridled tongue. She was in the company of two other women, and they were harvesting berries on a farmland close to the outskirts of Virgin Land. Ava gradually straightened herself from her crouched position and clapped her hands to show that she just witnessed an abomination. "Look!" She said, pointing the attention of her companions to the masses of dark-red clouds. Ava hugged herself and shook her head like Sunku, one of her counterparts who was repeatedly saying, "Not in my day!"

Their minds returned to the reality of the happenings around them, just as Sunku noticed a crack on the ground and called on the third woman.


Metu's gaze fell to the ground, in the direction Sunku was pointing, less than three metres away.

"Earthquake!" she screamed.

Metu jumped far away from the rift on the ground and watched it expand into tributaries of gullies that spread to the foot of Forbidden Mountains as well as surrounding settlements over four hundred metres away and more. The booms of the earthquake as it spread harmonised with the roars of the thunder above their heads to produce a terrifying chorus; and Sunku and Ava ran off, abandoning their baskets and the blood-red berries.

Metu, still holding on to her basket, chased after the other two women who were almost fifty metres ahead of her.

"Eziku Seku!" she screamed, as she finally abandoned her basket in a bid to catch up with her friends.

The last layer of the nyathiba around Metu's neck flew with the wind and the fitted muthuru on her waist tore into shreds. As she ran, her hands scurried to cover the portion of the red undergarments, the mwengūthe covering her groin and the lump of flesh behind, while her slackened breasts dangled and danced to the alacrity of her steps.

At the heart of Virgin Land, the royal tusk wailed an ominous tune when the scarlet clouds became visible from the observation tower at the left wing of the Anote's palace; and Akim, the king's butler ran into the palace to inform the king about the strange cloud.

"Anote! Anote! Anote!" He screamed.

"You say what?" Anote the Seventh, who was too inebriated to give a coherent response, groaned. "Red clouds are flying? Do clouds fly?"

"Anote!" Akim called again, tapping the king.

Because he knew that waking up the Anote whenever he dozed off from getting himself tanked up with fermented millet brew was a waste of time, Akim sought his own safety and abandoned the king to his fate.

In a short while, an overwhelming layer of red clouds enveloped the agrarian community, while the fierce storm, a cyclone, hurtling across Virgin Land, uprooted trees and houses. Spontaneous earthquakes swallowed the people and the acid rain burnt their flesh. While the adversity raged on, siblings, in their dying moments, shared final hugs; husbands abandoned their wives; and mothers deserted their young; yet the Anote snored.

As the meteorological disaster spread to other parts of Under the Sky, rivulets of rain trickled through the pores of rafters and awakened little children, many of whom were still unaware of the signs or "Day of Scarlet".



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